Is the Promise of Natural Gas Waning?

(The former leader of the Iowa Energy Office and founder of the non-profit Unfolding Energy challenges some assumptions about natural gas as a "bridge" between coal-fired power plants and renewable energy production. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

The final Clean Power Plan released on August underplays the role of natural gas in reducing carbon emissions in comparison to the draft Clean Power Plan rules released in 2014. According to the America’s Natural Gas Alliance President Martin Durbin, initial indications from the final Clean Power Plan rues indicate that the White House discounted gas’s ability to reduce GHG emissions quickly and reliably while contributing to growth and helping consumers.

For the last few years, natural gas was considered to be a bridge between carbon-intensive fuels such as coal and the clean energy of the future. Given that natural gas releases 50% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal, it was certainly a great substitute. However, the recent growth in the renewable energy industry is quickly proving that we may not need this bridge fuel after all.  Here is why.  

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What the Clean Power Plan will mean for Iowa

Yesterday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the final version of its Clean Power Plan for existing power plants, the “first-ever national standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants.” The final rule differs from the EPA’s original proposal last June in several respects. An EPA fact sheet spells out the key changes to the Iowa targets:

The goals are much closer together than at proposal. Compared to proposal, the highest (least stringent) goals got tighter, and the lowest (most stringent) goals got looser.

o Iowa’s 2030 goal is 1,283 pounds per megawatt-hour. That’s on the high end of this range, meaning Iowa has one of the least stringent state goals, compared to other state goals in the final Clean Power Plan.

o Iowa’s step 1 interim goal of 1,638 pounds per megawatt-hour reflects changes EPA made to provide a smoother glide path and less of a “cliff” at the beginning of the program.

You can read the final Clean Power Plan and related documents here. The EPA has posted a good summary of current climate change research here. After the jump I’ve enclosed excerpts from a White House list of benefits from the plan, the EPA’s two-page fact sheet about Iowa, and a graphic showing how much power plants contribute to U.S. carbon emissions relative to other major sources.

Renewable energy resources should make it easy for Iowa to meet the carbon emissions targets. I’ve also enclosed below excerpts from Donnelle Eller’s report for the Des Moines Register and Alisa Meggett’s commentary for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The facts about wind and solar power’s potential belie scary rhetoric from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various groups funded by fossil fuels interests about how the Clean Power Plan will affect businesses and consumers.

Reducing carbon emissions will incur massive collateral health benefits. The Physicians for Social Responsibility report Coal’s Assault on Human Health is still the best one-stop shop on why coal combustion causes so many premature deaths and chronic health problems. On the editorial page of today’s Des Moines Register, Dr. Yogesh Shah, associate dean of global health at Des Moines University, outlined the “human health effects of climate change,” which “are real and already being felt in Iowa.” Scroll to the end of this post to read excerpts, or better yet, click through to read his whole piece.  

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Five ways cleaning up coal-fired power plants will save Iowans' lives

The best news in Iowa this week came out of a federal courtroom in Cedar Rapids. As Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press, “Iowa’s second-largest power company agreed Wednesday to drastically cut pollution at several coal-fired power plants under a Clean Air Act settlement that’s expected to make the air safer and easier to breathe around the state.” You can read the full consent decree here and the complaint filed against the Alliant Energy subsidiary Interstate Power and Light here.

Huge credit for the victory goes to the Sierra Club Iowa chapter. Foley reports that this federal government enforcement action “started in 2011 when the Sierra Club filed a notice accusing the company [Interstate Power and Light] of violating the Clean Air Act.” The Sierra Club advocates for a range of policies to reduce air pollution and Iowa’s reliance on coal to generate electricity.

I enclose below highlights from Foley’s article and five reasons the changes at the affected power plants will save Iowans’ lives.

The agreement U.S. officials reached with Interstate Power and Light is also an encouraging sign that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision against the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule on mercury emissions is at most a temporary setback for clean air. In some communities, the court’s ruling won’t even slow down efforts to convert coal-fired plants to other fuel sources.

If only Governor Terry Branstad, who has often spoken of his desire to make Iowa the “healthiest state,” could recognize the benefits of burning less coal. Although Branstad was happy to bask in the reflected glory of new pollution controls at one of the affected Interstate Power and Light power plants, he welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the mercury rule, which the governor’s office characterized as a “misguided” EPA regulation.  

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House passes huge government funding bill: How the Iowans voted

Last night the U.S. House approved a $1.1 trillion “cromnibus,” a massive continuing resolution to fund most of the federal government through September 2015. The 219 to 206 roll call showed an unusual bipartisan split, with 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats supporting the bill, while 67 Republicans and 139 Democrats voted against it. Many of the most outspoken House progressives and conservatives were against the cromnibus, for different reasons. Only one of Iowa’s four U.S. House members voted yes: retiring Republican Tom Latham (IA-03). I have not seen any official statement explaining his reasons.

Republican Steve King (IA-04) opposed the bill primarily because in his view, it did not do enough to block funding for President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. I’ve posted some of King’s recent statements on the issue after the jump. King’s office has not responded to my request for comment on assertions by House Appropriations Committee staff that it would be “impossible” to defend the immigration order. King offered an amendment (full text here) which would have funded “all of the government until January 30 of next year but [would] prohibit any and all funds from being used to carry out the president’s lawless, unconstitutional executive amnesty in all its forms.” But an analysis by Scott Wong for The Hill suggests that the Obama administration would be able to carry out the executive order even if Congress shut down the federal government.

Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) both voted against the funding bill. I have not seen any official statement explaining those votes but will update this post as needed.

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Three ways the EPA carbon emissions plan will benefit Iowa, plus Iowa political reaction

Yesterday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled out a proposed rule to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. The full text of the rule and several short fact sheets are available on the EPA’s website. Click here to read EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s speech about the new policy. This fact sheet makes the short and sweet case for targeting power plants, “the largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S.” The new policy goal is to “cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30 percent from 2005 levels” by the year 2030. Other associated benefits: cutting levels of soot and smog in the air by over 25 percent in 2030, and saving money and lives through reducing air pollution. In fact, the EPA estimates $7 in health benefits for every dollar spent to implement the new policy.

While some in the environmental community were hoping for more aggressive carbon reduction targets, the new rule would be a big step in the right direction. For too long, elected officials in Iowa and nationally have ignored evidence that we need to address climate change. Furthermore, coal’s “assault on human health” is immense and under-appreciated.

Iowa political reaction to yesterday’s news was mostly disappointing but not surprising. I’ve enclosed noteworthy comments at the end of this post. But first, let’s examine three reasons Iowans should embrace the EPA’s new rule.  

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